Athena Swan Joke

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into……an Athena SWAN meeting.

They walked into an Athena SWAN meeting and joked at how diverse they were. Sadly, this is a true story.

Last week it was announced that Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As a Chemist, I was overwhelmed by joy.

Until now, only five women, have won or shared the Nobel for Chemistry, out of 184 honourees.

1911 Marie Curie née Sklodowska 

1935 Irène Joliot-Curie 

1964 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

2009 Ada E. Yonath 

2018 Frances H. Arnold 

A conversation with one of my clients this week provided inspiration for this post today.

If we could put those five incredible women in one room today, what would they say about the advancement of women in science?

In some ways, 100 years has provided huge leaps. In Marie Curie’s era her achievements are all the more remarkable given the fact that, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to attend Warsaw University, She could only take science classes at the “Flying University”, a clandestine and illegal school that often changed locations to stay one step ahead of the police.

It feels like things should have moved on in the last Century, and for many women it has. At the forefront of my mind though is another Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai awarded the 2014 Peace Prize jointly with Kailash Satyarthi for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right for all children to education. 

In 2020, 130 million girls still have no access to school education.

Charpentier and Doudna hope that their achievement will inspire the next generation of scientists, which is such an important message.

However, if we take Chemistry as an example ‘Breaking the Barriers report by The Royal Society of Chemistry’ 44% of undergraduates are women. This number has increased steadily over the years which is testament to all the outreach events and successful campaigns.

The striking thing for me though is that only 9% of those become Professors. What’s happening to all the women?

The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 to help the advancement of careers of women in science.

Many women are not backing this initiative because it is seen as a box ticking exercise by representatives in a room that are not representative of the very people looking for change.

I would:

Shout for structural changes around childcare, maternity and paternity leave.

Advocate for affordable childcare.

Make flexible working standard.

Remove short-term contracts and instability.

Re-imagine what success in academia looks like beyond REF and research outputs.

Focus on collaboration over competition.

Overcome the overwhelm epidemic.

What would you say if you were in the room?